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The Writing on the Wall: Rediscovering New York City's "Ghost Signs"

The Writing on the Wall: Rediscovering New York City's "Ghost Signs"

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The Writing on the Wall: Rediscovering New York City's "Ghost Signs"

5/5 (1 evaluare)
250 pages
52 minutes
Sep 19, 2017


The New York Times' pick in "A Holiday Gift Guide for Hardcover Fans"A Publishers Weekly pick in "Holiday Gift Guide 2017: Illustrated Gift Books"
A Photographic and Historical Record of the City’s Vanishing Advertisements

As the great city of New York moves, changes, and evolves every day, the few remnants of its past go unnoticed. New York City’s ghost signs” advertisements painted across the facades of buildings that date back to the 19th centuryare often invisible to the busy New Yorker, but defiantly conspicuous if only we turn our eyes and look upwards. These faded representations of the city’s rich economic and social history are slowly disappearing before our eyes, but not before they were captured by this photographer’s lens.

At the tender age of sixteen, Ben Passikoff roamed around Manhattan with his camera to document these fascinating signshand-painted messages written all over the city. This photographic collection features signs painted in the 1800s as well as in the 21st century; signs that advertise funeral homes, meat, and underwear; signs stretched across iconic buildings; and even signs that are no longer legible. Using his photographs as a looking-glass into the past, Passikoff provides insightful commentary on the economic, social, and historical significance of commerce in New York City, and its vanishing ghost signs, now preserved in this photographic record.
Sep 19, 2017

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The Writing on the Wall - Ben Passikoff


Whenever I’ve mentioned this project to people, or when people see me taking photographs of what appear to be blank brick walls and ask what I’m doing, they all seem to have the same questions. So, it seemed like a good idea to introduce my book with answers to some Frequently Asked Questions.

How did you get the idea for this project?

I was a member of The Browning School’s photography club throughout high school. When we went out to take pictures in and around Central Park, people shied away from the camera. They didn’t want a bunch of kids taking their photos, and that got old pretty fast, so we started taking photographs of inanimate objects. Cars, trees, statues, and buildings.

While taking pictures of buildings, I noticed that some of them had writing on their facades. Not graffiti, but writing that turned out to be messages—what used to be actual advertising. Most of it was old and really difficult to read, but some of it was still decipherable.

The more I deliberately looked for them, the more I saw. They were right there in front of me, yet somehow blended into the background of the city. The people before me who have involved themselves in this area of interest call them ghost signs. I had to actively work at looking for them in order to see them. I became curious about how many there were, what they advertised, and what I could glean from them about the economic history of New York City throughout the twentieth century.

Bazar Français: This building has been here for eighty-eight years and was built for the Bazar Français. I took the first photo in 2006 (left) and the second in early 2017 (right). While the sign is still readable, there is a clear difference.

What did the signs turn out to be?

I did some preliminary research and discovered that at one time, these painted signs were a primary form of advertising in the city. They were not printed billboards or posters, but actual signs hand-painted directly onto the sides of buildings. Many had been done when outdoor advertising and newspapers were the only media available. Even with the introduction of radio and television, these kinds of advertisements were still used quite a bit. Even today you can squint at the signs and feel as though you’ve been transported back to an earlier time in New York. The signs sometimes showed the number of the buildings in which the advertised businesses resided. Some of the taller buildings even had their addresses built into their facade.

Why would you bother to create a collection of them?

These signs represent a historical record of commerce in New York City. Or at least a part of it. They provide visual documentation of the businesses that existed and thrived and then—for many—disappeared. They are (in some cases) building-sized artifacts of the business world that describe what commerce and industry was like then. They are a unique medium, with which we can compare the economy of the twentieth century with today’s.

But they are also disappearing. The paint that the signs were written in and the sides of the buildings themselves are being eroded by the elements: the rain, snow, and wind, as well as changes in the environment. I was surprised to learn what car exhaust fumes can do to the facade of a building.

Some are being destroyed, as new construction replaces many older buildings. Occasionally tearing down a building can reveal an old sign that was built over long ago and, thus, preserved. Often, new construction, building modernization, and higher buildings are just obstructing some of the older signs.

Miss Weber’s Millinery No. 48 Take Elevator

The Manhattan Storage signs were always huge, blue monstrosities. This one is in West Chelsea.

Other signs just disappear under a new coat of paint. Or behind other advertisements.

When I was out taking photographs, sometimes I would have to find a vantage point that would give me a better angle to photograph a particular sign. Doormen and building custodians were pretty cooperative once I told them what I was doing. One owner of a five-story building on the Upper West Side told me: "There used to be a lot of those kinds of signs on buildings in this neighborhood. But people thought they made the buildings look shabby and old. So, they got painted over and now they’re

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  • (5/5)
    The story of an old house and the three unconnected women who leave their stories written on its walls to create a compelling three-part commentary on history, family, and the way people learn to view themselves. The action takes place over a period of nearly one hundred years with the house being the only constant.Magnificent manipulation of language and tremendous insight.Very clever, I loved it.